Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for December 17th, 2012

Contrasting the Newtown school massacre with an elementary school attack in China

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An interesting story in McClatchy by Tom Lasseter on an attack on elementary school children in China by a mentally ill person: the numbers are similar to Newtown: 23 students in China, but the attacked used a knife, and there were no deaths. None. People don’t kill people. Guns kill people. If he had used a gun, as in NewTown, the death toll would be like that of NewTown. Without a gun, the death toll was zero. Another contrast is the news coverage: Practically none in China. The story begins:

Not long after Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 schoolchildren and six adults Friday at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., the news swept through Chinese media and websites. The state Xinhua newswire ran an editorial headlined, “Innocent blood demands no delay for U.S. gun control.”

On that same Friday, 23 children were stabbed or slashed at a schoolhouse in central China’s Henan province. All of them survived – the attacker wielded a knife and not, as in Newtown, an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.

During the days that have followed, though, the sense of satisfaction about China’s strict gun laws has been accompanied by growing questions about the difference in how the two nations handled the incidents.

“The Chinese public has focused on the slow official response and the level of social reflection,” said a commentary piece posted Monday to the English-language website of the Global Times, a state-controlled publication. “Many are furious that while the Americans have started mourning nationwide, the Chinese appear insensitive to the Henan case.”

The piece pointed out that reporters from Xinhua had posted online comments “indicating that the responses from local officials are too slow and cold, with many details of the attack remaining unknown to the public.”

Even as Lanza’s life and possible motivation has been dissected in the United States, little is known about the man suspected of the assaults in Henan. State media reported that his name is Min Yongjun, he is 36 years old and “might be mentally ill, some villagers said.”

A statement Monday by officials in the local Guangshan county government said that initial investigations suggested that Min was “under the influence of doomsday rumor.”

The notice said authorities would be looking into whether Min has a history of epilepsy. It also acknowledged that an earlier release misspelled Min’s name.

There was no explanation for why exactly Min reportedly burst into the home of an 85-year-old woman about 7 a.m. Friday, argued with and attacked her, and then rushed off to the neighboring primary school, where he began slashing students with a knife.

The Tea Leaf Nation online magazine, which analyzes social media in China, found that “particularly vexing to observers was mainstream media’s following evident marching orders to downplay the Chinese tragedy in service of emphasizing the Newtown massacre, followed by local Guangshan government’s unwillingness to cooperate with an increasingly inquisitive press.”

As one Chinese Internet user put it Tuesday: “For the entire afternoon CCTV (state TV) has been doing extensive analysis and report about America’s shooting case: counting the numbers of gun shooting cases, if you are . . . so serious why do you turn a blind eye to and not report about a man in Henan stabbing 22 students” – the initial number reported. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 December 2012 at 6:47 pm

Posted in Daily life, Media

Wal-Mart: Corrupt corporation, bad citizen

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Wal-Mart should be broken up—and that store in Mexico should be torn to the ground and the field replanted. David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab report in the NY Times:

SAN JUAN TEOTIHUACÁN, Mexico — Wal-Mart longed to build in Elda Pineda’s alfalfa field. It was an ideal location, just off this town’s bustling main entrance and barely a mile from its ancient pyramids, which draw tourists from around the world. With its usual precision, Wal-Mart calculated it would attract 250 customers an hour if only it could put a store in Mrs. Pineda’s field.

One major obstacle stood in Wal-Mart’s way.

After years of study, the town’s elected leaders had just approved a new zoning map. The leaders wanted to limit growth near the pyramids, and they considered the town’s main entrance too congested already. As a result, the 2003 zoning map prohibited commercial development on Mrs. Pineda’s field, seemingly dooming Wal-Mart’s hopes.

But 30 miles away in Mexico City, at the headquarters of Wal-Mart de Mexico, executives were not about to be thwarted by an unfavorable zoning decision. Instead, records and interviews show, they decided to undo the damage with one well-placed $52,000 bribe.

The plan was simple. The zoning map would not become law until it was published in a government newspaper. So Wal-Mart de Mexico arranged to bribe an official to change the map before it was sent to the newspaper, records and interviews show. Sure enough, when the map was published, the zoning for Mrs. Pineda’s field was redrawn to allow Wal-Mart’s store.

Problem solved.

Wal-Mart de Mexico broke ground months later, provoking fierce opposition. Protesters decried the very idea of a Wal-Mart so close to a cultural treasure. They contended the town’s traditional public markets would be decimated, its traffic mess made worse. Months of hunger strikes and sit-ins consumed Mexico’s news media. Yet for all the scrutiny, the story of the altered map remained a secret. The store opened for Christmas 2004, affirming Wal-Mart’s emerging dominance in Mexico.

The secret held even after a former Wal-Mart de Mexico lawyer contacted Wal-Mart executives in Bentonville, Ark., and told them how Wal-Mart de Mexico routinely resorted to bribery, citing the altered map as but one example. His detailed account — he had been in charge of getting building permits throughout Mexico — raised alarms at the highest levels of Wal-Mart and prompted an internal investigation.

Part 1: At Wal-Mart in Mexico, a Bribe Inquiry Silenced

But as The New York Times revealed in April [“A Bribe Inquiry Is Silenced”], Wal-Mart’s leaders shut down the investigation in 2006. They did so even though their investigators had found a wealth of evidence supporting the lawyer’s allegations. The decision meant authorities were not notified. It also meant basic questions about the nature, extent and impact of Wal-Mart de Mexico’s conduct were never asked, much less answered.

The Times has now picked up where Wal-Mart’s internal investigation was cut off, traveling to dozens of towns and cities in Mexico, gathering tens of thousands of documents related to Wal-Mart de Mexico permits, and interviewing scores of government officials and Wal-Mart employees, including 15 hours of interviews with the former lawyer, Sergio Cicero Zapata.

The Times’s examination reveals that Wal-Mart de Mexico was not the reluctant victim of a corrupt culture that insisted on bribes as the cost of doing business. Nor did it pay bribes merely to speed up routine approvals. Rather, Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited. It used bribes to subvert democratic governance — public votes, open debates, transparent procedures. It used bribes to circumvent regulatory safeguards that protect Mexican citizens from unsafe construction. It used bribes to outflank rivals.

Through confidential Wal-Mart documents, The Times identified 19 store sites across Mexico that were the target of Wal-Mart de Mexico’s bribes. The Times then matched information about specific bribes against permit records for each site. Clear patterns emerged. Over and over, for example, the dates of bribe payments coincided with dates when critical permits were issued. Again and again, the strictly forbidden became miraculously attainable.

Thanks to eight bribe payments totaling $341,000, for example, Wal-Mart built a Sam’s Club in one of Mexico City’s most densely populated neighborhoods, near the Basílica de Guadalupe, without a construction license, or an environmental permit, or an urban impact assessment, or even a traffic permit. Thanks to nine bribe payments totaling $765,000, Wal-Mart built a vast refrigerated distribution center in an environmentally fragile flood basin north of Mexico City, in an area where electricity was so scarce that many smaller developers were turned away.

But there is no better example of Wal-Mart de Mexico’s methods than . . .

Continue reading. The Wal-Mart executives who shut down the bribe investigation should go to prison, along with the executives who authorized the bribes. This is a company out of control, one that believes it can break the law with impunity.

Written by Leisureguy

17 December 2012 at 5:59 pm

Posted in Business, Government, Law

Excellent post by James Fallows on possibility of progress on gun safety

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Read the whole thing. It’s brief and it’s heartening and it’s sensible.

Written by Leisureguy

17 December 2012 at 4:00 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government, Law

Language: Designed to prevent communication?

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Very interesting article by Mark Pagel in New Scientist:

Editorial: “A deliberate language barrier

FOR ANYONE interested in languages, the north-eastern coastal region of Papua New Guinea is like a well-stocked sweet shop. Korak speakers live right next to Brem speakers, who are just up the coast from Wanambre speakers, and so on. I once met a man from that area and asked him whether it is true that a different language is spoken every few kilometres. “Oh no,” he replied, “they are far closer together than that.”

Around the world today, some 7000 distinct languages are spoken. That’s 7000 different ways of saying “good morning” or “it looks like rain” – more languages in one species of mammal than there are mammalian species. What’s more, these 7000 languages probably make up just a fraction of those ever spoken in our history. To put human linguistic diversity into perspective, you could take a gorilla or chimpanzee from its troop and plop it down anywhere these species are found, and it would know how to communicate. You could repeat this with donkeys, crickets or goldfish and get the same outcome.

This highlights an intriguing paradox at the heart of human communication. If language evolved to allow us to exchange information, how come most people cannot understand what most other people are saying? This perennial question was famously addressed in the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel, which tells of how humans developed the conceit that they could use their shared language to cooperate in the building of a tower that would take them to heaven. God, angered at this attempt to usurp his power, destroyed the tower and to ensure it would not be rebuilt he scattered the people and confused them by giving them different languages. The myth leads to the amusing irony that our separate languages exist to prevent us from communicating. The surprise is that this might not be far from the truth.

The origins of language are difficult to pin down. Anatomical evidence from fossils suggests that the ability to speak arose in our ancestors some time between 1.6 million and 600,000 years ago (New Scientist, 24 March, p 34). However, indisputable evidence that this speech was conveying complex ideas comes only with the cultural sophistication and symbolism associated with modern humans. They emerged in Africa perhaps 200,000 to 160,000 years ago, and by 60,000 years ago had migrated out of the continent – eventually to occupy nearly every region of the world. We should expect new languages to arise as people spread out and occupy new lands because as soon as groups become isolated from one another their languages begin to drift apart and adapt to local needs (New Scientist, 10 December 2011, p 34). But the real puzzle is that the greatest diversity of human societies and languages arises not where people are most spread out, but where they are most closely packed together.

Papua New Guinea is a classic case. That relatively small land mass – only slightly larger than California – is home to between 800 and 1000 distinct languages, or around 15 per cent of all languages spoken on the planet. This linguistic diversity is not the result of migration and physical isolation of different populations. Instead, people living in close quarters seem to have chosen to separate into many distinct societies, leading lives so separate that they have become incapable of talking to one another. Why?

Thinking about this, I was struck by an uncanny parallel between linguistic and biological diversity. A well-known phenomenon in ecology called Rapoport’s rule states that the greatest diversity of biological species is found near to the equator, with numbers tailing off as you approach the poles. Could this be true for languages too? To test the idea, anthropologist Ruth Mace from University College London and I looked at the distribution of around 500 Native American tribes before the arrival of Europeans and used this to plot the number of different language groups per unit area at each degree of latitude (Nature, vol 428, p 275). It turned out that the distribution matched Rapoport’s rule remarkably well (see diagram).

The congruity of biological species and cultures with distinct languages is probably not an accident. To survive the harsh polar landscape, species must range far and wide, leaving little opportunity for new ones to arise. The same is true of human groups in the far northern regions. They too must cover wide geographical areas to find sufficient food, and this tends to blend languages and cultures. At the other end of the spectrum, just as the bountiful, sun-drenched tropics are a cradle of biological speciation, so this rich environment has allowed humans to thrive and splinter into a profusion of societies.

Of course that still leaves the question of why people would want to form into so many distinct groups. For the myriad biological species in the tropics, there are advantages to being different because it allows each to adapt to its own ecological niche. But humans all occupy the same niche, and splitting into distinct cultural and linguistic groups actually brings disadvantages, such as slowing the movement of ideas, technologies and people. It also makes societies more vulnerable to risks and plain bad luck. So why not have one large group with a shared language?

An answer to this question is emerging with the realisation that human history has been characterised by continual battles. Ever since our ancestors walked out of Africa, beginning around 60,000 years ago, people have been in conflict over territory and resources. In my book Wired for Culture (Norton/Penguin, 2012) I describe how, as a consequence, we have acquired a suite of traits that help our own particular group to outcompete the others. Two traits that stand out are “groupishness” – affiliating with people with whom you share a distinct identity – and xenophobia, demonising those outside your group and holding parochial views towards them. In this context, languages act as powerful social anchors of our tribal identity. How we speak is a continual auditory reminder of who we are and, equally as important, who we are not. Anyone who can speak your particular dialect is a walking, talking advertisement for the values and cultural history you share. What’s more, where different groups live in close proximity, distinct languages are an effective way to prevent eavesdropping or the loss of important information to a competitor.

In support of this idea, I have found anthropological accounts of tribes deciding to change their language, with immediate effect, for no other reason than to distinguish themselves from neighbouring groups. For example, a group of Selepet speakers in Papua New Guinea changed its word for “no” from bia to bune to be distinct from other Selepet speakers in a nearby village. Another group reversed all its masculine and feminine nouns – the word for he became she, man became woman, mother became father, and so on. One can only sympathise with anyone who had been away hunting for a few days when the changes occurred.

The use of language as identity is not confined to Papua New Guinea. People everywhere use language to monitor who is a member of their “tribe”. We have an acute, and sometimes obsessive, awareness of how those around us speak, and we continually adapt language to mark out our particular group from others. In a striking parallel to the Selepet examples, many of the peculiar spellings that differentiate American English from British – such as the tendency to drop the “u” in words like colour – arose almost overnight when Noah Webster produced the first American Dictionary of the English Language at the start of the 19th century. He insisted that: “As an independent nation, our honor [sic] requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government.”

Use of language to define group identity is not a new phenomenon. To examine how languages have diversified over the course of human history, my colleagues and I drew up family trees for three large language groups – Indo-European languages, the Bantu languages of Africa, and Polynesian languages from Oceania (Science, vol 319, p 588). These “phylogenies”, which trace the history of each group back to a common ancestor, reveal the number of times a contemporary language has split or “divorced” from related languages. We found that some languages have a history of many divorces, others far fewer.

When languages split, they often experience short episodes during which . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 December 2012 at 3:46 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

License and regulate guns similar to licensing and regulation of automobiles

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The idea has merit but might require a Constitutional amendment. (For example, because of the 1st Amendment, the government cannot require a license to run a printing press.) Still signing the petition could indicate to the White House that people really are ready for something to be done.

Written by Leisureguy

17 December 2012 at 11:37 am

Posted in Government, Law

“Adam Lanza’s mother”: The sad state of US care for the mentally ill

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The great disinstitutionalization of the mentally that took place under Ronald Reagan saw the closure of mental health facilities all over the country, with the mentally ill directed to community help centers that were unable to address the problem adequately and now are grossly underfunded, which has contributed much to the rise of the homeless populartion. (For many of the mentally ill, the choices are living on the street or in prison—that’s the US answer to the problem.) In a post on The Blue Review Lisa Long tells the heartrending story of her struggle with her mentally ill son:

Friday’s horrific national tragedy—the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in New Town, Connecticut—has ignited a new discussion on violence in America. In kitchens and coffee shops across the country, we tearfully debate the many faces of violence in America: gun culture, media violence, lack of mental health services, overt and covert wars abroad, religion, politics and the way we raise our children. Liza Long, a writer based in Boise, says it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

Three days before 20 year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year old son Michael (name changed) missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong color pants.

“I can wear these pants,” he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises.

“They are navy blue,” I told him. “Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.”

“They told me I could wear these,” he insisted. “You’re a stupid bitch. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!”

“You can’t wear whatever pants you want to,” I said, my tone affable, reasonable. “And you definitely cannot call me a stupid bitch. You’re grounded from electronics for the rest of the day. Now get in the car, and I will take you to school.”

I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.

A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.

That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. The mental hospital didn’t have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist.

We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael. Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He’s been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work.

At the start of seventh grade, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 December 2012 at 10:07 am

More sensible analysis from Paul Krugman

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I like the reference to Dr. Evil’s cunning plan to extort from all the world’s governments a total of ONE MILLION DOLLARS! Paul Krugman in the NY Times:

As you might imagine, I find myself in a lot of discussions about U.S. fiscal policy, and the budget deficit in particular. And there’s one thing I can count on in these discussions: At some point someone will announce, in dire tones, that we have a ONE TRILLION DOLLAR deficit.

No, I don’t think the people making this pronouncement realize that they sound just like Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies.

Anyway, we do indeed have a ONE TRILLION DOLLAR deficit, or at least we did; in fiscal 2012, which ended in September, the deficit was actually $1.089 trillion. (It will be lower this year.) The question is what lesson we should take from that figure.

What the Dr. Evil types think, and want you to think, is that the big current deficit is a sign that our fiscal position is completely unsustainable. Sometimes they argue that it means that a debt crisis is just around the corner, although they’ve been predicting that for years and it keeps not happening. (U.S. borrowing costs are near historic lows.) But more often they use the deficit to argue that we can’t afford to maintain programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. So it’s important to understand that this is completely wrong.

Now, America does have a long-run budget problem, thanks to our aging population and the rising cost of health care. However, the current deficit has nothing to do with that problem, and says nothing at all about the sustainability of our social insurance programs. Instead, it mainly reflects the depressed state of the economy — a depression that would be made even worse by attempts to shrink the deficit rapidly.

So, let’s talk about the numbers.

The first thing we need to ask is what a sustainable budget would look like. The answer is that in a growing economy, budgets don’t have to be balanced to be sustainable. Federal debt was higher at the end of the Clinton years than at the beginning — that is, the deficits of the Clinton administration’s early years outweighed the surpluses at the end. Yet because gross domestic product rose over those eight years, the best measure of our debt position, the ratio of debt to G.D.P., fell dramatically, from 49 to 33 percent.

Right now, given reasonable estimates of likely future growth and inflation, we would have a stable or declining ratio of debt to G.D.P. even if we had a $400 billion deficit. You can argue that we should do better; but if the question is whether current deficits are sustainable, you should take $400 billion off the table right away.

That still leaves $600 billion or so. What’s that about? It’s the depressed economy — full stop.

First of all, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 December 2012 at 9:47 am

Sounds like Lamarckism to me: Inherited resistance to cocaine addiction

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It’s not exactly Lamarckism, but epigenetics certainly sings much the same tune. An interesting article in The Scientist by Ed Yong discusses how cocaine-using rat fathers pass epigenetic changes on to their sons that make them resistant to coke addiction:

If a rat becomes addicted to cocaine, you might expect that its offspring would also be predisposed to using the drug, especially since drug addiction is heritable and tends to run in families. Instead, scientists from the University of Pennsylvania (U Penn) have shown that the sons of cocaine-using male rats find the drug less rewarding, and are more likely to resist addiction.

The findings, published today (16 December) inNature Neuroscience, “were the exact opposite of what we expected,” said U Penn’s Chris Pierce, who led the study. His team showed that cocaine use leads to epigenetic changes in a rat’s brain that boost the levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). These same changes are seen in the sperm of drug-taking rodent parents, and can be passed on to their male pups.

Although it is not yet clear if the results apply to humans, Pierce said in a statement that “the implications of findings such as these for the descendants of cocaine addicts are profound.”

“It’s very interesting, but also very scary,” said Paul Kenny, a neuroscientist at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida who was not involved in the study. “When you think about behavior, you think about your own behavior, not the fact that you could influence the behavior of your offspring through epigenetics. If other people find similar effects, and it’s a robust phenomenon that equally translates into humans, it’s something people need to be aware of.” (Read more about the possible heredity of epigenetic changes inThe Scientist’s recent feature, “Lamarck and the Missing Lnc.”)

Pierce’s graduate student Fair Vassoler, now a postdoc at Tufts University, allowed male rats to give themselves hits of cocaine for 2 months. She then mated these males with drug-free females, and tested the pups’ reaction to cocaine. The daughters proved to be just as sensitive as their parents, but the sons were more resistant. . .

Continue reading. Looks like the Y chromosome is good for a few things…

Written by Leisureguy

17 December 2012 at 9:37 am

Terrific shave with polished-head Weber

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SOTD 17 Dec 2012

A very fine shave today. First shave with that Vie-Long horse brush, and again a distinct horsey smell. I sort of like it, but in any event it will not last long—so I try to enjoy the fleeting experience.

I got a good lather with the Speick Erasmic shave stick [Edit: Curse those vendors who don’t identify their products! I went back after a comment below and checked: the Speick shave stick is also unidentified, but at least has “Stuttgart” on the bottom plastic piece. The Erasmic is an inexpensive English stick, not so good as the Speick—and I was indeed disappointed that the “Speick” stick didn’t make a better lather this morning. – LG], and then set to work with the polished-head Weber. You may recall that my first shave with the razor seemed somewhat harsh, and I didn’t much like it. That was with a Kai blade, so for my second shave I switched that out and used an Astra Superior Platinum blade. MUCH better. In fact, a fully enjoyable shave with a very smooth result, with no burn or irritation. It seems that for me a Kai blade doesn’t work in that razor. With the ASP, I would say that the head is slightly better than the Edwin Jagger, but now I want (a) to do a side by side shave with the two, and (b) try a Kai blade in an Edwin Jagger and see if that also seems harsh. Lots of permutations to track down, but now at least I can recommend the polished-head Weber, along with the suggestion to do some renewed blade exploration with it.

A splash of Speick and I’m ready for the day, a day that, if it doesn’t rain, will include a walk.

Written by Leisureguy

17 December 2012 at 8:39 am

Posted in Shaving

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